When Trying Isn’t Enough: How Immigrants Experience the Danish Language

I’ve been in Denmark for nearly eight years and my Danish is…fine. I understand pretty much everything and can speak Danish fairly well. My accent is, of course, atrocious, but I simply sound like a non-Dane speaking Danish. Danish is something that I’ve worked on at a range of intensities since moving to Copenhagen for the first time in 2008.

At that time, I didn’t think I would be staying forever, so I didn’t engage with the language in a serious way. When it became clear that my family would make Denmark our home, I dove in, taking intensive language classes and speaking in Danish as much as possible with Danes. I’ve had varying degrees of success, and I’ve found that the best way for me to improve is to learn the language alongside my toddler son; this has actually proven really useful.

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation in Danish. The context isn’t important, and I don’t want to call out any specific person, but suffice it to say that it was a conversation that a) required my full attention as it had to do with my child and b) included some mildly complicated language. After an hour long conversation in Danish in which I responded to questions, asked my own questions, and generally acted like an engaged human being, I misheard something. I just didn’t quite get that particular sentence. Immediately, the person I was speaking to said, exasperated, “do you need us to get you a translator?”

Record scratch. Huh? Haven’t we been speaking in Danish for an hour? I stuttered out that I had simply misunderstood and that, no, I didn’t need a translator.

I left the conversation embarrassed and internally scolding myself for my mistake. But as the day went on and I reviewed the exchange in my head (obsessively; living in a second language has made me sensitive in ways that I usually am not), I began to wonder how common this experience was for non-native Danish speakers. What is the threshold that immigrants in Denmark experience for language mistakes?

Internationally, few people actually speak Danish. After all, this is a small corner of the world, and people often ask us: “What language do people in Denmark speak?”

Part of the problem with Danish specifically is that most Danes speak English. They speak it so well that should you not be able to speak Danish, they will usually switch to English without even asking.

That’s not the case for many other languages, and so the issue of “switching over” doesn’t exist. This would appear to be a non-problem (“oh no, the entire population can make your life easier! I’m so sorry for you.”), but for those of us actually trying to learn the language and who would like to see our efforts bear fruit, it can be an obstacle to convince people to keep speaking in Danish, even when our Danish isn’t perfect, or more truthfully, very good.

It’s not so much an issue of not being able to communicate as it is an issue of not being accepted. I can get by in Denmark just fine without learning Danish, but I’d never feel like I was really home. Forming strong relationships and being a viable candidate in the job market (though this doesn’t hold true in some industries) in Denmark is largely based on whether or not you can speak Danish.

After my failed conversation, I began asking immigrants to to share their experiences with the language. I also asked Danes where they feel the line is; when do you switch to English, or even just correct someone’s language? And why?

American immigrant Kate Krosschell tells me, “When I’ve noticed a change in a conversation, it’s often this look of confusion and is usually related to the way I pronounce something. People switch to English a lot, which I think is meant to be inclusive, but then I still end up getting excluded from the conversation. There’s a wall that gets created then, and the non-Dane has no control of that wall,” she explains. “My coping mechanism is to lean into that and make fun of myself. In the moment, that can really work, but then I often walk away from the conversation feeling like I misrepresented myself, or that I was willing to put myself down to make someone else comfortable.”

The theme of having to gently mock your own language skills came up repeatedly in my conversations with immigrants, with the underlying message of, “make fun of yourself before they do.”

British immigrant Kevin Kafesu explains, “I attempt to speak Danish from time-to-time, but I do it with humor; I haven’t quite reached the serious discussion [level of language]. My confidence always drops after [a Dane] says, ‘huh?’ Then, and only then, do I switch to English.”

American immigrant Amanda Yee sets out what she sees as a problem of adaptability, rather than conscious choice: “I have found that there’s not a lot of variations of Danish; in English there are so many dialects and accents. There’s also so many second-language speakers in America, so our ears are used to adapting to that. Danish people’s ears don’t seem to adapt. So I don’t know if it’s intolerance, but it has been a deterrent to me in embracing the language, because no one understands what I’m trying to say. I have a French friend who speaks Danish and I watch him when we’re out; people are really receptive to him even though it he’s clearly got an accent. In terms of that switch over, I’m not sure if it’s condescending – it might just be easier for Danes because they speak English so well – but it can come off that way.”

Australian immigrant Lena Rutowski says, “From the beginning I insisted to my workplace that I only wanted to speak Danish and everyone in my life who knows me well respects that. Sometimes people hear my accent, however, and use English automatically.  I once called a person out on it and he said ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t actually realize I was speaking English, it’s just like a switch was flipped.’ I can appreciate it isn’t intended as comment on my language ability and that it is unconscious and unintentional. But it’s also telling about how ingrained the idea of ‘pure Danish’ is to Danes, given that hearing accented Danish ‘flips a switch’ in their heads.”

But Danish photographer Morten Nordstrøm pushes back on the characterization, explaining, “I’ve never done or seen anyone [switch over]. I think most Danes are just super impressed when people from other countries speak our language. We know it’s a tough one to crack.”

I agree that Danes seem to know their language is difficult to learn, but that sometimes translates into a desire to “protect the language” rather than to open it up to second (or third, and so on) language speakers.  So rather than engage with semi-good Danish, Danes would rather speak English, thus reserving Danish only for those who speak it on a native-level. It’s a case of: if you can’t get the language right, you don’t get to have it at all.

Those quoted for this article do not represent the full range of immigrants in Denmark; they are ages 30 – 40, they moved to Denmark for love or a job or an adventure, not as refugees, economic migrants, or as young children without a choice. While the group is racially diverse, it’s not socially diverse, and that’s notable in the Danish context. Denmark is a country currently grappling with its own national identity and changing demographics. It’s not a pretty process, and it involves a lot of exclusionary language and action, including holding “Danishness” – and specifically the Danish language – close.

In switching over to English, maybe Danes are trying to be helpful. Maybe they genuinely don’t understand the accents of non-Danes, as Amanda Yee notes, and Danish is a very pronunciation-focused language – but this is another historical symptom of a homogenous population. Maybe they just love the chance to practice their English. It’s likely that it’s all these reasons, and a few others too.

The reasons are important insofar as they explain the set of actions, but they don’t change how those actions make immigrants feel. When trying your best isn’t enough, where do you go?

I don’t have an answer yet, but it starts with taking these language snags a little less personally, and also letting Danes know how it feels when they do happen. Perhaps it just starts with pointing out, free of anger and free of expectation, “Look, I’m trying.”


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Rebecca Thandi Norman

Rebecca Thandi Norman is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Scandinavia Standard.